‘How did this happen?’
A Young, Neurodivergent, Religious, Cis-gendered, Woman’s Journey into Housing Insecurity and Homelessness
– Rachel, Catherine House Client*
Whether you’re aware of it or not, whether you’re upper or lower class, homelessness can happen to anyone. This is the story of how I, a 23-year-old, neurodivergent, cis-gendered, Christian woman, became and still is homeless. I’m currently living at Catherine House, which provides crisis accommodation for women experiencing homelessness.
Usually, a client stays at Catherine House for up to three months before finding suitable accommodation. I’ve been here for six months. The housing crisis means any kind of housing is hard to get. It’s hard not to feel I’m overstaying my welcome; that someone needs this bed more than me. I want to go home, be with my cat, and have my own bed. But where is home? In my time at Catherine House, I’ve applied for any and every housing opportunity that came my way. But as a single person who is under 25, there is a stigma. ‘Why don’t you just go home and live with your parents?’
I’ve been active in the rental market since I was 17, paying $70 per week to my aunt in board. This is when I met the man who was to become my financial abuser, eleven years my senior, a female-to-male transgender person. I moved into my first rental away from my family to be with him. I skipped school so we could spend time together. As a result, my grades suffered, which still impacts me today. I want to go to university, and the absence of an ATAR score has limited my education options.
I would classify the time I spent with this person as a queer relationship. He opened my eyes to the inequality people outside of the binary space experience. This is when I began exploring my sexuality. My attraction to this person helped me discover that I wasn’t only attracted to cis-males, but women and other people, too. Early in the relationship, he began emotionally and financially abusing me, pressuring me to take out loans in my name and threatening to leave me if I didn’t. I still stayed. At 19, I failed my TAFE course because I couldn’t find time to study while holding down three jobs to pay off all the loans. Five years later, I’m still paying off the debts with the resultant bad credit rating – part of the reason I can’t secure housing.
In the last five years, I’ve jumped from one share house to another, staying there for as long as three years to as little as three months. I have been stolen from, had sentimental items broken, and I’ve lived with drug addicts, alcoholics, emotional manipulators and people who physically abused my pets. I came home one day to find an uninvited male roommate in my bed. Through this time, I’ve continued to wish for the day I could finally live on my own. Now, I’m hesitant to let anyone new into my house. I don’t think I will ever feel safe sharing a house with people who are not my family.
I’ve lived in heterosexual, queer, all-female and mixed-gender households. Living in a heterosexual household meant I had to suppress who I was out of fear for my personal safety. I had to maintain a facade to keep the roof over my head. As a single female living with strangers, I was at risk of being sexually assaulted. The first gift my aunt gave me for ‘your new house’ was a deadbolt for my bedroom door. She asked me if I knew the people I was living with and if I could vouch for my safety.
I faced similar anxieties living in an LGBTQ+ positive household. As a person, I was accepted, but my faith was not. Many people believe that one cannot be both queer and Christian. My love for Christ challenged people’s perception of what a stereotypical Christian looked like. I stopped mentioning that I was a regular churchgoer when I was applying for queer-based shared houses.
Three months into the lease of my last rental, I took a weekend trip with my grandmother for her birthday. The day I was due to return, I received a text asking me to collect my things because I had been evicted, effective immediately. Thank God my grandma offered her couch. If it weren’t for her, I would have been on the street. I loaded my belongings into a storage unit and couch-surfed with various friends and family for three months. To care for my mental health, I took up running and stumbled across United Western Homelessness Services. I was nervous meeting with the case worker for the first time. Admitting I needed help felt degrading. After my assessment, I received a referral to Catherine House.
I was on the Catherine House waiting list for six weeks. I was driving when I received a phone call offering me a room. I had to pull over to collect myself. It was such a relief to hear the warm, friendly voice of the intake worker at the end of the line, reassuring me that I had a proper bed to sleep in and the support I so desperately needed.
Rachel’s bedroom at Catherine House
Since coming to Catherine House, I feel like a new person. The opportunities and support I’ve received here are unparalleled to what I could’ve done if I’d continued to tough it out on my own. I’ve been working closely with my case workers, and they’ve been assisting me in finding permanent housing. They’ve provided support to attend appointments with me. All it took was that first step, admitting that I was facing homelessness and needed help.
Upon arrival at Catherine House, I was blessed with a new pair of pyjamas. I was so excited to receive a clean set, as my only possessions were what I could fit into a small suitcase. I also received a personal hygiene kit, and all my meals were provided. Anything else I needed, all I had to do was ask. The relief I felt in that first week cannot be described. I’ve finally got the time to search for a house and not have to jump at the first available, in fear of sleeping rough.
I’ve always struggled with my mental health. I was diagnosed with ADHD at six years old and anxiety shortly after that. This, accompanied with high functioning depression, has negatively impacted my ability to stay employed and housed. Now, I’ve had time to focus on my mental and physical health, addressing things I didn’t have the time or finances to address before. I’ve started medication to treat my ADHD and am currently undergoing an autism assessment. My entire mental healthcare team agrees, Catherine House is the best place for me to be right now. I’ve been able to have jaw surgery and my wisdom teeth removed whilst having a safe space to recover. Having the space to rest and focus on my mental health is a godsend. I’m seeing a psychologist once a month, which Catherine House recommended to me. Together, we’re working on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is unpacking why the brain reacts the way it does and how trauma affects our ability to respond in situations.
I spend most of my time at the onsite Catherine House Women’s Centre, which provides activities and an education and employment program. It’s such a safe and therapeutic environment. They deliver fun and practical activities like art and music, a ‘Staying Safe For Women’ course, and an Adult Community Education training course called ‘Live Your Best Life and Plan for Your Future’, which I recently graduated from. This 10-week course run by the Education and Employment Officer focuses on self-discovery and setting yourself up for future education or employment to get back on your feet and ready for a forever home. I made the decision to commit to each week. In the past, for a multitude of reasons, I couldn’t finish my studies, so I wanted to prove to myself that for 10 short weeks, I could show up. Amongst numerous other commitments, I still did.
My participation enabled me to accept an invitation to do advocacy and spokesperson training through the Economic Media Centre. I took the class to be proactive about my future. I discovered my passion for media and journalism, leading to several official and unofficial speaking roles for Catherine House in radio, newspapers and on TV.
I’ve had other opportunities to complete unfinished studies and pursue casual employment. I’ve received practical support through their donor education grant program, which has assisted with my study and university enrolment. I’m waiting to be accepted into Foundation Studies at UniSA for 2024, with the intention of going on to further study.
I am still currently homeless, but Catherine House has given me hope for my future in forever housing. No longer do I have to sacrifice my personal safety to have a home. Being a woman who is homeless, I have learned that homelessness can happen to anyone. I never thought I would be in this position, yet I am. Everyone deserves a roof over their head and a safe space to sleep.
*Name changed to protect client’s privacy
**Shortly after writing this story, Rachel received news that she had been offered her own housing.